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We Think We're So Smart

>> Thursday, January 28, 2010

but nature usually has us beat.

Check out this article on what we can learn from slime mold regarding transportation system efficiency.

Slime molds, by the way, have got to be some of the coolest things in existence.  They were once considered fungi and do resemble fungi in that they reproduce by spores.  They also generally have an animal-like motile phase during which they feed and grow.  For some slime molds this involves an ameboid or flagellated swimming stage - that sounds remarkably critter-like, doesn't it? 

However, slime molds typically also have a more plant-like, nonmotile, phase during which they reproduce.  Some slime molds are ameba-like, ("cellular" slime molds), which are a whole bunch of cells that aggregate and flow together.  They can actually form a multicellular mass that sort of resembles a slug and crawls about in search of a location with that meets its heat and light needs.  Perhaps even cooler, check out this article on their ability to "learn" and measure time without any apparent brain.  At least not any brain we humble humans can see.

And yes, you can probably find a slime mold or two to observe right in your own back yard or favorite patch of woods or swamp.  Check out some great pictures of a whole variety of slime molds in a wonderful entry on the Squirrel's View blog from November.

If you hadn't already clicked on it, I also recommend the "10 Innovations Inspired by Nature" slide show that is on the slime mold article page.  All of these are interesting, but my favorites are the gecko (based solely on cuteness factor) and the lotus leaves.  Please, may I have an entire house fashioned out of something that has the dirt-repellant properties of lotus leaves??? 

Regarding #9 and the amazing ability of White Album beetle scales to appear brilliantly white, let's not use this innovation to develop tooth whitening technology as suggested, shall we?  Scaly teeth?  Really?  Humans will do anything for fashion and beauty!


The Eagles Return

>> Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The return of bald eagles to Onondaga Lake makes me happy.  See here for a recent news article on the subject.

I have been privileged to spot bald eagles around Syracuse for the past couple of years.  The first time I saw them I was on the lawn outside of Sainte Marie among the Iroquois on Onondaga Lake Parkway in Liverpool.  Sitting on the lawn with my husband and enjoying the view on a pretty summer's day nearly three years ago, I was sort of lazily watching a big bird circling over the lake, when I suddenly sat bolt upright and pretty much shouted "HOLY CRAP!  THAT'S AN EAGLE!" 

No one believed me except for my husband, who also saw it, and the volunteers at Sainte Marie who had been spotting them regularly and just sort of nodded and smiled knowingly when I mentioned it.

Then perhaps a year ago, I was riding in the car with my father on John Glenn Boulevard, not particularly near the lake.  While we were stopped at a stop light I spotted a mature bald eagle circling overhead.  I casually said, "Hey - that's an eagle."  My Dad, said "Nooo, I don't think so..." followed by a pause, followed by "Hey!  That really is an eagle!"

The point of this story is that it's sad that we should all be so skeptical about bald eagles returning.  Part of our skepticism, of course, is rooted in the near extinction of bald eagles because of hunting and the widespread use of the pesticide DDT and whatever else nearly did them in.  Throughout my childhood in the 1970s and 1980s, bald eagles were sort of just a legend for me, almost as much as the ivory billed woodpecker.  I never really thought I'd see one, and if I did, I sort of figured it would be just one, once.  Somewhere else.

Then they slowly started trickling into the area.  The first time I became aware of them locally was at Montezuma Wildlife Refuge, which is maybe 45 minutes west of Syracuse.  In 1976, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation began a program to reintroduce bald eagles to the state starting at Montezuma.  It wasn't until 1980 that the first pair released from Montezuma nested in northern New York, but wasn't until 1987 that the first pair of bald eagles nested and successfully raised eaglets right at Montezuma.  I should say the first since 1956.

How wonderful is it that you can now see them most days right here in Syracuse?  On any given day you can spot eagles by going to the upper levels of Carousel Mall and looking out the windows with binoculars, or late afternoon (4-4:30ish) they often seem to fly over Sainte Marie among the Iroquois.  During the summer months, I also recommend boating along the Seneca River just north of Onondaga Lake.  If you don't have a boat, try a cruise with Mid-Lakes Navigation starting at Dutchman's Landing.  I have now twice had my boat escorted up the canal by a bald eagle who flew from tree to tree beside us, looking sternly and disapprovingly at the boating riffraff cluttering up his water.

Not only does the near extinction of bald eagles make it surprising to spot them here, but as Syracusans, the health of Onondaga Lake makes it surprising as well.  Poor Onondaga Lake is widely touted as the "most polluted lake in North America" and a few other disparaging nicknames.  I admit it is pretty bad, but also feel compelled to point out that it's improving.  There are plans for all sorts of cleanup activities to remove depositions of contaminants left by the historic industries of Syracuse.  For some more info on lake cleanup and condition, you can try the Onondaga Lake Partnership web site, or the NYSDEC web site, for starters.  Much of the improvement in the condition of the lake to date is related to improvements made by Onondaga County to its wastewater treatment facility. 

Most local people I talk to who are not scientists or bass fishermen snort derisively when I note that Onondaga Lake is getting better.  But darn it, it is.  And it will continue to do so.  The proposed cleanup is of course controversial, but even disregarding the proposed dredging and capping activities, the lake has been surprising scientists with how fast it has achieved certain markers of returning health.  For one thing, the variety of fish in the lake is fairly high.  According to Onondaga County reports, something like 48 species have been found there between 2000 and 2009, including some species that tend to be pretty sensitive to contamination. 

It's amazing what nature can do to heal when left to itself for a bit.  It has a long way to go, but at least I feel hopeful that it's going in the right direction.  Would I swim in it?  Not yet, but I would happily kayak across it.  That's progress.

While I admit to a twinge of anxiety about how much mercury the eagles might be taking in by fishing on Onondaga Lake (mercury is one of the major industrial contaminants in it), I also am happy that the lake seems clean enough to the eagles that they're here.  The thrill of spotting the massive, majestic birds right here in my own city hasn't worn off yet - I hope it never does.



>> Tuesday, January 26, 2010

We only had a few minutes for woodsy wanderings this weekend, so we stayed close to home and went to Baltimore Woods again.  The snow had melted enough that snowshoes weren't necessary, so my snowshoe-less spouse accompanied me.  We weren't there terribly long, and the dim, depressing, pathetically gray light made photography a challenge.  Overall, it was a fairly uninspired and uninspiring walk, but I thought I'd share a few of the random bits we stumbled on.

First the fungi.  Some black knot fungus:

Not sure what this next one is.  I can't find my #$%^*! fungus field guide.  What the heck could I have done with it?  You can click to zoom in.  It's like dozens of tiny wrinkly red brains.

And I'm not at all sure a fungus is involved in this, but the waxy gray and orange of this log looked peculiar and possibly fungusy or slime moldy to me:

As far as tracks go, it was a disappointing day to try to follow any footprints in what was left of the snow. It was so warm that most were melting almost instantly, so all the tracks were pretty much just shapeless indentations in the snow. The deer prints were still distinct since they step in so much deeper than everybody else, but there wasn't much else that was identifiable. It was frustrating since we were completely surrounded by those little shapeless impressions. We did manage to spot a few well-traveled trails small critters had made under the surface of the snow as the melting snow exposed the tunnels from above:

It's amazing to contemplate the complex maze of passages that must exist just under the surface. It makes me claustrophobic just to contemplate burrowing about everyplace under all the snow.

On to some poo.  We walked through one area that was covered in rabbit scat.  It was everywhere!

At a glance it looked like someone had taken handfuls of kibble and scattered them across the surface of the crusty snow.  Lots of bunny tracks, some even fresh enough to still identify, and plenty of nibbled branches.  There must be a healthy bunny or two nearby.  A tuft of fur, too:

I think this is fox scat.  Furry, sort of twisty looking.  The picture turned out terrible - my apologies.  Somehow it has no color in the photo, although it was a nice brown with lots of gray fur in it.

I know there are plenty of fox at Baltimore Woods.  I forgot to bring a baggie with me (yet again) so was forced to leave the scat in place rather than taking it home for dissection.  I declined to use my camera case for the purpose, and for some reason my husband didn't volunteer the use of his pockets.

One of the things I love about Baltimore Woods is all the grape vines.

They make for good photos with all their weird shapes, and all the wonderful seats they form.  Why is it that I can't resist sitting on the ones that are right next to the trail?  Happens every time.

See?  Every time.  There are a whole bunch of pictures of me hanging off grape vines and up trees.

Finally, we went on a quest to find a bridge that I helped build as a girl scout something like 20 years ago.  I suspect it may even have been replaced by now, because as near as I can remember this was the location, but this bridge looks too new.

It was fun to wander around and try to dredge up the old recollections, though.  Another of the bridges nearby bore evidence of a squirrel walnut snack:

Strange fungi, critter tracks and snacks, turds, and old memories.  Another ordinary woodland wandering.


Icy Architecture

>> Monday, January 25, 2010

It was well over 40 degrees on Sunday and the snow had melted enough that snow shoes just weren't necessary.  So I dragged spouse off for a brief walk through Baltimore Woods.

We discovered a few fun things, but my favorite was the ice in a little stream we wandered past.  Most of the stream was wide open flowing water, but there was one area that was shaded by some pine tree coverage and had elaborate ice formations.  The light levels were very low and that made photography mighty tricky, especially since I'm still learning to understand this camera.  I took more than 200 pictures (have I mentioned my need for a new external hard drive?), and only a handful were good.  It was fascinating to stare at all the spiky, bubbly formations, though.

Given that it's supposed to be 50 degrees and is pouring out today, I suspect all these gems will be completely gone by this afternoon.


The Amazing Elasticity of Snow

>> Wednesday, January 20, 2010

It was warm Saturday - several degrees above freezing.  The sun was out, and there was virtually no wind.  I was so warm snowshoeing that I was happily sweating wearing only old overall leggings that work great for cross country skiing or snowshoing, a super lightweight moisture-wicking shirt, and an unzipped low-tech Barbie-pink fleece that everyone picks on me for.  (It IS incredibly bubblegum).  Hat and mittens were stuffed in my camera case.

Temperature perception varies dramatically, though, I admit.  I snowshoed past one woman swathed to the eyeballs, wearing a calf-length puffy down coat with its hood up over a hat, a huge scarf, mittens, fluffy boots, and insulated pants.  She made me hot just to look at, and I'm usually cold!

I don't know if they're any more impartial at judging winter temperatures, but it was warm enough that there were bugs out flying around in a beam of sunlight, which surprised me.  I know there are a number of varieties of bugs that like it cold, but I'm not used to seeing anything flying in swarms in the winter.  Only a couple showed up in the photo, but there were several dozen of them:

It was, of course, also warm enough to melt some snow.  While wandering along, I spotted the following:

It looks to me like that strip of snow used to lie along the vine, and had slithered around and draped itself off it by the time I came by.  It immediately called to mind an incredible snow swath that once graced the railing of the deck at our old townhouse.  We'd had a big lake effect snowstorm followed by several days with highs slightly above freezing, and the snow on the railing gracefully slid off the edge and stretched itself downward in an unsupported arc:

Honest - it wasn't formed around a garland or string of Christmas lights or anything - that's 100% snow. Here's another view:

It stayed like that for several days, creeping ever so slowly downward.  Eventually it rained, and the snow ribbon was sadly no more.  Cool though, huh?

Honestly, everything about snow seems odd to me if I think about it hard enough.  The very idea of the landscape being covered in all that stuff seems strange.  It's like how a familiar word can suddenly seem spelled wrong if one thinks about it too hard.  I may be mighty used to snow, but it still surprises me sometimes.

If I had to guess, I would say the snow bending off branches and railings happens most often when the snowfall has come down as big fluffy flakes rather than granules or graupel.  Those pretty flakes with all their little jags and points wind up becoming interlocked as they fall and compress.  Then when it gets warm and they start to melt, they still hang together and melt as a mass rather than just as individual flakes, giving the clump of interlocked flakes the ability to droop, fold, hang and stretch.  Any snow scientists out there who can confirm my guesswork?  Anybody ever quantifiably measured the elasticity of snow?  I bet someone has...


Ghostly Snow Prints

>> Tuesday, January 19, 2010

I've only really begun to develop an appreciation for tracking critters in snow.  It's not that I didn't think it was interesting before, but more that I never stopped to think about just how much one can figure out about what a creature did, and sometimes even thought, just based on the impressions its feet/tail/wings/belly left in the snow.

And if you think you can't figure out what an animal was thinking based on its tracks, try reading this post on squirrel neuroses on one of my very favorite blogs called Naturespeak.  One of the many, many benefits of becoming a blogger is discovering other people's blogs, and y'all have impressed the socks off me with your tracking expertise.

I have an infinitely long way to go before I'm any good at identifying critters and reconstructing their behaviors.  But as I start looking more thoughtfully at tracks in the snow I am starting to think of them almost as rather ghostly impressions an animal's spirit has left behind.  As one begins to unravel the complex patterns in the snow, one can almost sense the passage of time and see the animals walking, digging, pausing, jumping, flying and marking as they passed by.

When else can one so accurately reconstruct an animal's movements, other than when there's snow on the ground?  Unless, I suppose, one is a dog.  I strongly suspect my hounds smell the ghostly scent impressions left behind the way I see the snow prints, only they can do it year round.  If they could talk, they could probably tell me what type of animal it was, what it had for breakfast, when it last mated and how anxious it was when it walked by, among a lot of other things.

My inferior senses leave me to laboriously puzzle out the snow prints instead.

On Saturday at Baltimore Woods I didn't identify any remarkable prints beyond the ones one might usually expect to find - mostly a whole lot of deer and squirrel.  But they, too, do interesting things.  Both had been engaging in a great deal of digging.  Presumably the squirrels were looking for buried treasure they (or their neighbors) had saved up for the winter.

There were tons of these little divots, and while you can't see them in this photo, they were generally surrounded by squirrel prints.

The deer, on the other hand, were rummaging for farm field remnants.  At first glance I noticed the farm field was criss-crossed with deer prints.

At second glance I noticed some odd disturbances in the snow in the middle of some of the trails.

Upon closer inspection I found the field had had corn in it in the fall, and the deer sure knew where to find the corn-cobs that had been missed by the harvesters.

The snow also helps me out by pointing out things I would ordinarily miss, such as this debris:

which made me look up to spot the source:

Suddenly I could envision all sorts of woodpeckers who might have hopped up and down and hammered on that tree.  I have always wondered how on earth they can do that without getting wicked headaches.

In winter, even the plants leave behind ghostly remnants of their former glorious selves, such as this wild cucumber pod.  How cool is this weird spiky thing?  It reminds me of a blowfish:

One can picture the growth of these pods from tiny little nubs to spiky green pods tossed by the breeze. Eventually these skeletal pods will fade away and become part of the soil again, where the new green shoots will emerge in the spring.

So here's to the neverending mystery of the great outdoors, and to joy of discovering just how fun and mysterious the forensic reconstruction of a critter's passage can be.


Scrrrunching through the woods

>> Sunday, January 17, 2010

This past weekend was nearly as crammed full of obligations as the prior weekend (and next weekend isn't looking any better).  However, I made it a priority to get outside for a brief snowshoeing trip on Saturday by telling myself it was officially on my "must do" list so I'd have something to blog about.

That, my friends, is one of the reasons I like keeping this blog.  It helps me prioritize getting outside even when it seems impossible.  My best friend teases me that I can justify just about anything if I work at it. She's so right!

My husband (God bless the man!) decided he'd rather stay home and put away the Christmas tree and clean the house than frolic in the great outdoors, so I left him in charge of the fur and took advantage of the rare opportunity to play somewhere that dogs are not allowed.  Usually if we're heading outdoors the hounds have to come too because a) I feel too guilty leaving them inside when I'm out having fun, and b) I don't feel like torturing myself unnecessarily by allowing them to build up too much pent up energy.

One of my very favorite places to play in the woods is a place called Baltimore Woods.  Dogs aren't allowed there, so I don't get there very often anymore despite that it's quite close to home.  I miss it.  I have been going to Baltimore Woods in all seasons since I was a kid and love it.  It's never too crowded, is a nice mix of wood and field and stream and pond, makes for good birding and wildlife spotting, and is by far the best place I know of to look for spring wildflowers.  They have wonderful nature education programming, too.

The terrain at Baltimore Woods is pretty rugged as it's centered around a deep gorge on lots of cool glacial geology.  Skiing isn't allowed there - for a darn good reason.  I have been cross-country skiing since I was 2, and while I'm no ski racer or remarkable talent on them, I am extremely comfortable on skis.  But you couldn't pay me any amount of money to try to cross country ski down this:

If you managed to avoid the trees in the first few big sweeping turns, you wouldn't likely manage to avoid them in the much steeper switchbacks at the bottom, and if you did manage to avoid the trees, you'd end up (bump bump bump kersplunk!) in a frigid stream at the bottom.

No thanks.  There were two foolhardy individuals (male, roughly 20) putting on skis just as I was leaving.  I hope no ambulances were involved.  It pays to read the rules - sometimes they exist for good reason.

Anyway, I have been hoping since I bought my snowshoes that Baltimore Woods would be steep enough for me to use the MSR's "Televator Heel Lifter" feature.  It turns out that it's mighty hard to take pictures of one's own heels - here's the best I could manage:

See that lighter gray tab under my tan boot heel?  It's on a black metal bar.  That's the Televator doohickie, which is basically just a bar that lifts up under the heel. Instead of resting on the bottom of the snowshoe, the heel rests on the elevated bar so that your foot is much more level while climbing steep terrain.  It reduces calf strain. Worked like a charm coming back up that gorge! Then I had a heck of a time getting them back down. Not only is the angle wrong for photography of one's own heel, but it's also wrong for grabbing a tab and pulling backward and down while wearing the snowshoes.  Ah well.  Fun toy anyway.

Technically it wasn't snowy enough to need snowshoes on Saturday - curse this above-32 spell.  I could have walked quite comfortably without them most of the way.  But they're new, provide good traction, and my boots don't have a cool Televator feature that I was dying to try out.  So I snowshoed.  The disadvantage was that they're noisy as heck on the kind of heavy damp icy snow we presently have.  The SCRRRUNCH SCRRRUNCH SCRRRUNCH SCRRRUNCH of my footfalls certainly scared off any wildlife I might otherwise have crept up on.

There are only about 6 miles of trails at Baltimore Woods, and I usually take the longest perimeter trail just to get some distance in.  I think perhaps the many different habitats the trail passes through are part of why I like Baltimore Woods so much.  I made my way down to the bottom of the gorge, then worked my way back up on the other side through deciduous woods, and along the edge of some open fields.  It passes through a long-abandoned sand pit that makes for good bird watching, although only chickadees serenaded me there on Saturday:

And then it winds along the edge of some farm fields.

I distinctly recall once seeing three baby raccoons hiding up a tree on the edge of the farm field.  It was my husband's first trip there perhaps 5 years ago, and it predated my camera-toting days.  But we played peek-a-boo with those fuzzy baby raccoons for a good 10 minutes because they were so irresistibly cute, and they firmly believed that if they couldn't see us, we couldn't see them.  I think of them every time I pass through here - I even remember the exact tree they were in.

Eventually the trail winds its way back through the woods and up and down the sides of the gorges again, and past a pond.  The pond is great for duck/heron/turtle/frog watching in warmer seasons.

Then I scrrrunched along through more woods, across a stream, and back on up the really steep side of the gorge with my Televators in action and back to the car.  It wasn't a long walk but those hills make for good exercise.  I certainly felt infinitely better for a few hours in the delicious sunshine and fresh air.

I need to make a point of getting to Baltimore Woods more often.  Come spring, I will make a point of coming back so I can post a whole bunch of wildflower pictures.  What a long way off that seems!


Really Big Toys

>> Thursday, January 14, 2010

I appreciated this article by Sean Kirst in the Post-Standard yesterday, about how Syracuse is the snowiest big city in the U.S. and we should embrace that status more fully.

Admittedly I feel a twinge when I contemplate the snowiest big city status because the "population of 100,000" threshold is fairly arbitrary, and places like Fulton and Lowville always have Syracuse beat when it comes to snowfall.  I understand that Lowville has some massive rotary snow plows that they pull out when there's too much snow for regular plows.  I haven't seen them myself, but in searching the Internet for some photos or footage, I encountered quite the cache of riveting snow removal footage.

Check out this sucker.  It's essentially what would result from a regular big old snow plow mating with a snow blower, and then the offspring taking steroids.  A lot of them.  Or check out this one (I love the punch line on that video, when they pan over to a clear view of the oops!, and the evil laughter in the background).

By far my favorites among the Wicked Cool Snow Moving Equipment, though, relate to trains.  Try this awe inspiring footage of a plowing train.  I found myself leaning forward as I watched the engine bog down, as if I could somehow help it break through.  Or how about this little engine that could?  How on Earth do they get trains out of situations like that, or like this?  Apparently with a little assistance.

Okay.  Eh hem.  Betcha didn't know I'm part redneck at heart.  Big Snow Plows.  Heh heh heh.  Cooool.

Back to that article, though - I completely agree that we ought to embrace our crazy snowfall 'round these parts.  We cope with the snow remarkably well on a technical level, but couldn't we play it up a bit more? Make it a tourist attraction and get more people outside playing in it, rather than just enduring it?  Instead of just hosting international bass fishing tournaments on Onondaga Lake, how about hosting a snowplowing competition?  I, for one, would go to it.


No, no, no, no, no!

>> Wednesday, January 13, 2010

First of all, every year around this time I start getting supremely annoyed with the kajillion companies that send me clothing catalogs. Why?  Because I don't want to idly flip open the first page and see this:

while I'm standing huddled over the wood stove trying to return life to the fingers that became popsicles while getting the mail.

Or THIS while I'm contemplating how many layers I need to put on in order to sit still in the house for a few minutes without goose bumps:

I get cold just looking at those shirts.  Or (*gasp*) REALLY not this, while I'm at my whitest, flabbiest, chilliest, winter best:

Actually, come to think of it, I just never want to see anything related to swim suits - that's not seasonal.

Do these catalogs work?  They must.  Otherwise they wouldn't use them.  But in Upstate New York in January, these don't make me want to buy their clothing.  They make me want to run screaming from such scanty little tops and toe baring straps.  All I can think about is the systemic shock of stepping into a snowbank in sandals.  Alternatively, they make me contemplate moving to a warmer climate, to someplace where the concept of spring is not roughly 5 months and 65" of snow away.

While we're on the subject of snow, though, allow me to observe that this post's title applies to the following sequence of photos as well.

Dang it all, if we're going to have winter, we may as well HAVE it.  To hell with swimsuits and tank tops and shorts for now, and enough of the incredible shrinking snow piles outside.  Let's have some more snow.  At least I could have some fun with it, and relish a cozy snowed-in evening or two in front of the fire.  Bring it on!


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